Peering into their social studies books, Pakistani girls face images of traditional gender roles.
Girls are depicted as cooks in textbooks, while boys are teachers or engineers, observed Madiha Afzal, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution in global economy and development.
Education, which can be a driver for gender equality in a male-dominated society, supports traditional gender roles that diminish girls instead. At least in many textbooks, Afzal said.
“Girls don't actually understand what they can do beyond school,” Afzal said. “They don't understand that they can actually work.”
Over 3 million girls do not attend primary school in Pakistan, according to a 2013 UNESCO report. Worldwide, 31 million girls of primary school age are out of school. Of these, 17 million are expected never to enter school.
Afzal said many Pakistani parents want their daughters to obtain an education but face many obstacles to do so. Like Humaira Bachal, whose mother wanted her to go to school.
But, “her father hit me,” when Humaira sat for Grade 9 examinations, said Humaira’s mother while sewing a piece of cloth, to the Pakistani news agency Dawn. “He did not want a girl leaving the house for her education.”
That didn’t stop Humaira’s mother. She often covered for her daughter when the father inquired. Neither of them had enjoyed education.
“Education is essential for women.” Humaira’s mother said. “They have reached this position today because of their education. Otherwise, they would have also been slaving away for their husbands somewhere.”
Child marriage is another obstacle. What might be done to secure finances for a child can do quite the opposite. Approximately 1 in 5 girls in Pakistan are married before age 18, said Rebecca Dennis, senior legislative policy analyst at Population Action International (PAI), an organization focused on affordable, quality contraception and reproductive health care for women.
Early marriage interrupts a girl’s formal education. Once married, girls are soon expected to have children and look after the household, Dennis said.
Girls who attend primary school are more likely to wait to get married after age 18, and they are more likely to prioritize education for their daughters. And, even if girls want to attend school after marriage, they are often restricted by local or school policies in Pakistan, Dennis said.
Poverty is another factor. In households where resources are scarce, education is often provided to sons first, who are considered more lucrative than daughters. When family income hits a bump, school enrollment declines for boys, but disproportionately more for girls, Afzal said.
The lust for a boy child to bring in wealth to the household drives parents to give birth to multiple children, leading to lack of education for the girl child. Often, she sits at home looking after younger siblings.
Safety and honor are other factors. In 2014, more than 1,500 rapes, 2,170 kidnappings and 713 “honor” killings were reported in Pakistan, according to Benazir Jatoi, legal advisor Aurat Foundation, a nonprofit “to create a just, democratic and caring society in Pakistan,” where women and men are recognised as equals. “Aurat” in Urdu means woman.
But these numbers don’t represent the entire picture. An “unimaginable” number of cases are never registered to maintain the honor and marriageability of the girl, said Neelofar Nawab, law clerk at Tully Rinckey PLLC, a law firm in New York.
If a girl has to cross hamlet boundaries to get to school, she must be accompanied for her protection by a male relative, who loses a day of wages walking her, Afzal explained. Many families cannot afford to do so.
Lack of infrastructure and government support is another issue. Although, the implementation of the Right to Education Act in 2010 mandates the state to provide education for all children between 5 and 16 years old, gaps remain, Afzal said.
Only 2.6 percent of Pakistan’s annual GDP is invested in education, according to a 2015 World Bank report.
Pakistan’s political instability has also prevented governments from focusing on education. In the 70 years since Pakistan’s creation, no prime minister has completed full term.
“When [politicians] see a shortened time horizon, what they need to do is … deliver, and actually have something to show for the votes that they want their constituents to give them,” Afzal said, “so they’ll build a road rather than improve a school, because improving a school is less visible.”
Lack of functional and private toilets are another problem preventing some girls from attending school in Pakistan, Afzal explained.
But the situation has and continues to improve, Afzal said.
In 2003, the Punjab province of Pakistan introduced the Female School Stipend Program (FSSP). The program offers 2,400 rupees, ($40 USD) per year to families of schoolgirls in grades six to 10 who lived in one of 15 target districts with low literacy rates, Afzal said.
The girls are required to attend school at least 80 percent of the time to receive the stipend. By 2014, the FSSP covered 393,000 pupils.
In Sindh, a province in southeast Pakistan, efforts are being made by the state’s education board to partner with private enterprises to operate co-ed primary schools that are tuition free. This program has also increased girls enrollment, Afzal said.
Humaira Bachal, who had to fight for her own education, started a school for more than 1,000 students, where she teaches in the underrepresented neighborhood of Mawach Goth in Karachi, according to a Dawn News documentary.
Parents were initially adamant that their children work in factories, instead of attending school, Bachal said. At least with that, they would bring Pakistan rupees 60 ($0.6 USD) at the end of the day, they said.
But, things have changed, Bachal said.
“People have started realizing that this small mistake can ruin their child’s future,” Bachal said before recalling her mother’s support.
“Whatever I am today, is because of her,” Bachal concluded.